The Evolution of Cincinnati’s Elephant Man

Cecil Jackson Jr. has been taking care of the Cincinnati Zoo’s elephants practically his entire life. He’s determined to prepare the animals, and the zoo itself, for a better future.

Cecil Jackson Jr. is a daily presence around the Cincinnati Zoo’s elephants, and when he talks to them, they listen. “Atta girl, Mai-Thai,” he says one spring morning to a female cow weighing in at some 8,600 pounds. “Over here.”

Illustration by Gary Musgraves

The great gray beast looks at him appraisingly, lumbers to a position flush with the massive steel columns walling her in, and lifts her trunk. Jackson, carrying a basket of chopped vegetables, pitches two at her feet and continues with his commands. “Other side.” Mai-Thai turns around. “Foot.” Mai-Thai lifts her front right foot and places it on a bar. Jackson examines her toenails. “Other.” The left foot rises.

Jackson does not yell. His voice is firm, yet solicitous. Neither tall nor slim, he sports dark-rimmed glasses, a gray goatee and moustache, and a pink complexion. Today, and most days, he wears a black polo shirt with a Cincinnati Zoo logo on the pocket, gray shorts, and clodhoppers worthy of military duty. The presentation is large and authoritative, but not off-putting.

After 41 years at the zoo, his bond with the elephants is obvious. Should Jackson be gone, for example, on vacation for a couple of weeks, his return is marked by stomping, honking, pooping, and peeing, to the point where Val Nastold, a senior keeper and zoo employee for 34 years, has been heard to say, “Good lord, it’s like your dad walked in.” He refers to Jackson’s late father, Cecil Jackson Sr., who was the zoo’s elephant manager from the 1950s through his retirement in the 1990s.

“Turn around, lean in,” says Jackson, and Mai-Thai presents her flank to the keeper. He then blows a whistle, which for the elephant is a signal of positive reinforcement, followed by the more tangible reward of food. “Ear,” he says, and Mai-Thai ensures that her ear is easily accessible. Jackson examines it.

The exchange comprises a morning routine that permits Jackson to see if anything appears amiss with each of the four elephants under his care. It also reinforces ongoing training with the giant creatures: They hear the instructions, they obey, and they’re rewarded. Not surprisingly, the dynamic parallels how most people interact with their dogs. It’s just that, with elephants, the drama is amplified many times over.

The Cincinnati Zoo’s elephant program is nearly as old as the institution itself (144 years) and as new as the latest thinking in zoological circles. That thinking differs radically from the past. If you, reading this, are of a certain age, you’ll recall local elephants in zoo shows, in downtown parades, and in close proximity to their keepers in any number of spectator-centric situations.

Cecil Jackson Jr. and Jati photographed in September 2013, before new protocols dictated that keepers stay out of elephant quarters except in emergencies.

Photograph by Michael Wilson

Jackson stores on his computer many photos of such encounters; one pictures an elephant sporting a large banner urging viewers to JOIN THE ZOO. No longer. According to the protocols of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, elephants today are not to be displayed anywhere outside of their zoo habitats; they are to be trained in a strict regimen of command-and-reward; and, most critically, they are given their own space. Keepers remain close to them, just outside the bars of their quarters, but except in critical situations—like a birth—they don’t go in.

The kind of close physical contact that keepers, let alone the public, enjoyed for more than a century is no more. Jackson, like his father before him, used to go into their cells to feed, bathe, and work with them. Now he keeps a short distance. He refers to the past as “the cowboy days,” as if they occurred in a remote yesteryear.

In fact, the new thinking is quite new—about three years—and the adjustment to it hasn’t been easy. That Jackson has adjusted and indeed become a passionate proponent of the new ways is to his enormous credit. “I have evolved,” he says. “I have seen the changes. People don’t want to see animals perform now. They want the animals in captivity to be living as close as they can to what it’s like living in the wild. They want them to do what they do voluntarily. My job is to make sure our team—and it is a team [four professionals, plus an endless stream of interns, students, and volunteers]—is working with the elephants to achieve that.”

Jackson isn’t naïve. He knows that “one or two people somewhere,” people who weren’t well trained in their work or took chances they shouldn’t have, got injured by an elephant. Or worse. And in his view, those individuals went a long way toward ruining it for everyone else. In all his years on the job, Jackson has never had an untoward incident. He would be as comfortable in the pen with Mai-Thai as he is talking about his work with the potential donors that Zoo Director Thane Maynard brings his way. But he also knows that in this era of animal right activists and circuses eliminating elephant acts, the old traditions—like him walking down the midway with an elephant in tow—are gone. He isn’t going to fight it. But some are.

Across the U.S., in zoos large and small, longtime elephant keepers have resigned in protest against the new rules. Either they weren’t willing to comply, or they didn’t see how they could. As discouraging, several zoos have dropped elephants altogether, including the nation’s oldest zoo in Philadelphia. After examining and discarding that option, the Cincinnati Zoo board reaffirmed its commitment to elephants by launching the “More Home to Roam” capital campaign designed to give the city’s pachyderms a new five-acre outdoor homestead by 2025.

Map courtesy Cincinnati Zoo

The plan, which will cost about $90 million, includes a new indoor/outdoor elephant facility where the Safari parking lot (425 spaces) currently sits, a new parking lot across Erkenbrecher Avenue with 1,500 spaces, and a walking bridge between that lot and the zoo. These features are part of a larger, $150 million fund-raising effort that will ultimately yield a “Roo Valley,” home to kangaroos and other creatures from Down Under, along with a doubling of space for black rhinos and polar bears adjacent to where they now live. Once the elephants move, their vacated space will be transformed for other large mammals.

Cecil Jackson Jr.’s evolution is, among other things, a direct offshoot of his father’s long-ago admonition that what’s important in an animal manager’s life is the zoo that employs him. The zoo will be here, Jackson Sr. used to say, long after you’re gone. What’s important is that you pass it along in the best possible shape.

So Jackson Jr., who is 58 and says he has nine more years to work, plans to do just that. “I love the zoo so much,” he says. “I want to leave it with a great program. I don’t want it to be a zoo where we don’t have elephants. So I keep bringing stuff to the table. I show them what works here and what works there, and what we should do. I speak the truth.”

Once a year, Jackson attends the Elephant Managers Association annual meeting, always at a different U.S. zoo, where he learns some of the latest and best tactics in elephant husbandry. “We have four elephants now,” he says. “If the program we envision is realized, I can see seven or nine.”

Jackson was raised a country boy, farming, fishing, hunting, and living in Grant County, Kentucky, where he graduated from the local high school. He continues to live close to the ancestral home, a 75-minute drive from the zoo, with his wife, and he continues to farm, fish, and hunt in his leisure time. His three adult daughters live close by. He is also the lead singer and guitar player in a bluegrass band, making certain that at least a part of his vacation each year is spent onstage at Indiana’s Bean Blossom Bluegrass Festival.

His persona in Kentucky, he says, is markedly more relaxed than his comportment at the Cincinnati Zoo. Friends who have observed both ask why; he says it’s a reflection of how seriously he takes his work.

Jackson did not attend college. As long as he can remember, he was shadowing his father. “I loved what he did,” he says. “I would come to the zoo as a kid. I farmed with him. We literally did everything together. Dad taught me how to make the job happy.” (Cecil Jackson Sr. worked at the zoo until 1998 and died two years ago.)

If, today, Jackson lacks the polish or sophistication that can accompany higher education, he compensates with acute horse sense and a high degree of comfort within his own skin. A self-proclaimed raconteur, he recounts an incident with Cathryn Hilker, longtime zoo patron, founder of its Cat Ambassador program, and a pivotal player in establishing the zoo’s educational outreach. “It was about 30 years ago. A bunch of us were downtown with animals at some kind of festival, Cathryn with her cheetah, and at some point I was hungry, and my father said, ‘Over there, shrimp and rice.’ Well, I never had shrimp before, but I got some and started chewing on it, and I wasn’t getting very far, and Cathryn saw me and said quietly, ‘Honey, you have to take the shell off.’ Which I did, and then it was delicious. She didn’t call me out for being an idiot, not knowing how to eat shrimp. She wanted to help me, and she did it with respect. I have always appreciated that.”

Since then Hilker and Jackson have kept in touch. She has told him she wants to get him to Africa to see elephants in the wild. He’s never been, and he’s OK with that.

Christina Gorsuch, the zoo’s curator of mammals, is Jackson’s boss. Younger than Jackson and the first female he has reported to, she’s won his respect and admiration by advocating strongly for the facilities he needs to create the “model” elephant environment. “Lady Boss,” he calls her. Gorsuch, on her part, believes Jackson “has several things going for him. His history with the zoo is invaluable. He has been teaching and training his entire career. He is a coach, not a drill sergeant with his people. Second, living on a farm, he has been around large animals his whole life. He knows they’re driven by positive reinforcement. Finally, he isn’t a spring chicken. He has seen the future trends, seen the evolution of elephant care change dramatically, and he’s been flexible enough to get in step.”

Thane Maynard endorses his curator’s assessment, and adds, “Cecil is proud of our programs, proud to be an elephant leader. Among his peers, he’s widely respected. They know he’s one of them.”

If there is dissent to that opinion, it comes from Jackson himself, who observes that not all his zoo peers love him, that some may resent the very profile that Maynard describes. To which Maynard quickly notes, “Elephant keepers and managers have a lot of swagger. They need that kind of confidence to handle their animals. The secret is consistency. If they’re not on top of their game 100 percent of the time, the animals will know it…and that doesn’t work.”

Later in the morning, after inspecting and weighing Schottzie, a 9,600-pound female, Jackson gives her a bath. Like the inspection, this is a daily ritual, except that it’s performed in front of a small cluster of spectators in the viewing spaces of the zoo’s venerable Elephant House. As the audience presses forward, Jackson takes a large green hose and says, “Get over and get down.” Schottzie lies down, and Jackson begins squirting across the vast expanse of her head, legs, back, and sides. Mud pours off in watery rivulets, and Schottzie seems to enjoy the process.

In time, upon command, she stands up, turns around, faces forward, lifts her trunk, and opens her mouth. “She wants a drink,” Jackson says, and aims the hose into her throat. Eventually, he says, “All right,” the signal that the elephant is free to go. She turns immediately and retires to more private chambers. If she weren’t washed daily, Jackson says, she would stink.

In the course of the morning, each of the zoo’s elephants (Mai-Thai, now 48 years old; Schottzie, 43; Sabu, a 10,600-pound male who’s 31; and Jati, a 7,600-pound female who’s 32) is inspected and bathed. These are the basics of elephant care, along with feeding and cage cleaning. In each of the tasks, everyone—from Jackson down through his keepers to the many who are learning but not paid—pitches in. Hay, grain, and vegetables are distributed in surprisingly complex ways: in cabinet-like holding units suspended from the ceiling, which the animals must access from the bottoms with their trunks, or in hollow wooden balls with a hole drilled in the surface so that the elephants can suck out the contents.

Outside, in two smallish adjacent lots where each of the animals spends several hours a day, food is made available both on the ground (vegetables) and in buckets (hay) hoisted well above their heads, so that they must reach for it with their trunks. The idea, Jackson explains, is to recreate as closely as possible what it’s like for them to live in the wild, where no one is serving food.

“We research what goes on in the wild,” he says, “because captivity is another way of living. Each of these elephants has spent his or her entire life in captivity. In the wild, animals will run from you because they have plenty of room. Here, they will appear to come at you because they see room on the other side of you. If you’re going to be a trainer, you have to be careful not to let the animal train you. Like, you hear the elephant honking, so you run out with a bale of hay. No. You let the animal know that he has to give you something before he gets something. It’s a way of building a relationship with him.”

In Jackson’s office, which he shares with four colleagues, a piece of paper on the wall has the word WHINING printed in bold letters, with a circle around it and a slash running through it. It could be a mantra for how Jackson runs things, although he’s quick to say he didn’t post it. The office is a welter of old furniture, computer screens, cables and wires, books and papers, nothing seemingly new or top-of-the-line. And nothing to encourage lingering by people unfamiliar with its contents.

Likewise, the various elephant holding spaces surrounding the office are a maze of thick steel cylindrical columns, heavy metal doors, and cement floors suffused in animal odors—hay and manure. Into this sequestered world, Thane Maynard likes to bring board members and important visitors—Chelsea Clinton visited earlier in the spring—because Jackson, in his own words, “makes it happen.” He wants his elephant display to be a model for what others can aspire to. He wants Maynard’s visitors to see what he hopes is the best of its kind. “This is the way I’ve structured my life,” Jackson says, and quickly follows up by saying it’s learned behavior. “Dad was my model.”

But it’s more than that. It’s Jackson’s ambition to leave the Cincinnati Zoo with the same legacy that his father left: a great elephant program, but one that fits the contours of today’s animal husbandry philosophy. Zoo administrators, the board, the public, fellow zoo employees, the elephant team, volunteers, interns, and students will all play a role in achieving that goal, but they’re only means to an end. “I don’t come to work for the people,” says Jackson. “I come for the animals.”

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